Last year, the director Kasi Lemmons did something interesting, if not consistently successful, with the character of Harriet Tubman: She turned her into a modern action hero. Lemmons’s film “Harriet” had the beats and the posture towards its audience of a thrill-ride multiplex feature, but set in the 19th-century South instead of the present day and starring Cynthia Erivo instead of, say, Liam Neeson.
Similarly, Lemmons’s new television project, “Self Made” — which she executive produced and the first two episodes of which she directed — recasts a figure from black history in the argot of the present-day; though characters in the story of hair-care pioneer Madam C.J. Walker are dressed in turn-of-the-century garb, they speak with the frankness of characters from, well, contemporary television. If it’s a project that’s once again more fascinating than across-the-board well-made, fascination is not nothing — certainly not when applied to a figure whose contributions deserve to be better-heralded.
Octavia Spencer, here, plays Sarah Breedlove, who takes on the name and the persona of Madam C.J. — eventually the first self-made female millionaire — after experiencing herself the transformational power of hair regrowth. Sarah’s life is changed by Addie (Carmen Ejogo), an industrious maker of balms and a figure who tries to over-prove her case: Addie’s products truly work to fix patchy or broken hair, and yet Addie, born with lighter skin and long, loose curls because of her mixed race, insists on marketing them as if they will generate hair of an entirely different texture. Spurned by Addie after having offered to help sell her products — Sarah is deemed unappealing for what Addie presents as the obvious matter of the texture of her hair — Sarah sets out on her own, taking on the name of her husband (Blair Underwood) and moving from St. Louis to Indianapolis to escape her rival.
The show can be credited, then, with pushing toward complicated and often-painful matters of prejudice on the basis of skin color and hair texture from its earliest moments; it deserves mention, too, for the ways in which Spencer combines a modern-minded understanding of her worth and her capabilities as a budding businesswoman with her expression of simple ecstasy as Ejogo massages her scalp. This show understands that both feeling confident in one’s appearance and the process of arriving there are luxuries that connect us, elementally, with our humanity. It’s easy to forgive some of the silliness around the Addie character — who Sarah fantasizes about boxing and later sees as an apparition taunting her — for small touches of grace like these.
The show loses momentum as its protagonist’s career gains it; it puts forward issues in her life like her husband’s philandering and her daughter’s (Tiffany Haddish) attraction to women without always having much to say about them beyond a somewhat basic communication that Sarah could stand up for herself, or that she was tolerant. (It comes as no surprise given the loving, generous, and at times inertly appreciative tone that this work was based on a biography by Madam C.J. Walker’s own granddaughter.) But its reverence towards Walker isn’t matched by stodgy storytelling; it finds in moments a briskness and charge that might elude a more straightforwardly told period drama. To wit: W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington make appearances, the latter in a turn that treats Washington’s “bootstraps” philosophy with outright dismissal, suggesting it elided the rights of women not by accident but by its nature. It’s an argument that is made with startling, productive bluntness.
This contemporaneity bears other fruits, too. Elsewhere, a scene in which Madam C.J. and her daughter visit Harlem bursts with curiosity, with visual grandeur and plainspoken excitement to be there. The camera toggles from person to person, as if trying to take in all at once a cityscape in which black people are not just economically liberated but free in every sense. It feels less like a vacation for Madam C.J. than like a utopia. A show bound by convention might not bolster Spencer’s performance of excitement and curiosity with such zazzy camera and costume work; this one, modern in every sense but especially in its understanding of moments of changed, nails it.